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The paintings

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Christ Surrounded by Musician Angels
Panel, oak
Middle panel 169.7 x 212.7 cm; left-hand panel 170 x 231.5 cm; right-hand panel 170 x 230 cm
Inventory numbers 778-779-780

These three large panels are only part of a huge altarpiece. Christ, as the King of Heaven, and the sixteen singing and music-making angels are in fact witnessing the assumption of The Virgin Mary, who originally was to be seen below them, at the centre of the piece. This would explain why Christ is looking down and why the inscription 'Maria Jesus' can be read on the robes worn by the angels. Unfortunately, we do not know what became of that particular painting and the rest of the altarpiece.

Big commission

It is thought that these life-size paintings hung in the Santa María la Real Church of the Benedictine abbey in Nájera in Northern Spain. Memling was probably commissioned to paint it in the late 1480s, when he was at the height of his career and the abbey church in Nájera was being modernized with royal support in Gothic style. It was one of his most important and biggest commissions. Spanish merchants living in Bruges probably acted as mediators.

Inspired by van Eyck

The paintings have been part of the museum's collection since 1895. They are important as an illustration of musical life in Memling's day (e.g. they show how instruments were built and music was performed), but most of all as a magnificent example of fifteenth-century panel painting in the Low Countries. For these three paintings Memling clearly drew inspiration from van Eyck's Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which predates it by half a century.

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